Saturday, September 30, 2017

Freedom to Speak

"Make America Great Again" was the slogan/war-cry Donald Trump effectively bellowed to rise to power. On a recent broadcast of the talk show "Real Time with Bill Mahar", the well known author Salman Rushdie posed a poignant question in response to that slogan. He asked, "When was that period in time when America was truly Great?. Was it during the time of slavery, segregation, the Vietnam War... it will be good to know when was America really great?" to which Bill Mahar responded and I paraphrase "1945, when we liberated Europe from the clutches of fascism".

There is little doubt in anyone's mind that the American blood spilled to rid the world of fascism was an enormous sacrifice. The American soldiers and their allies were truly exceptional and selfless in their fight against evil and prevailed due to their perseverance and courage. But then again, it was that very war that led to the creation of the Atomic Bomb which was then dropped on innocent civilians in Japan, bringing the whole horrific ordeal to a sordid end. But that war of all wars did not stop America's long tradition of spilling blood. There have been very few days since the end of that war, when this nation's soldiers have rested in their barracks while their leaders contemplated the next one.

But there is one thing, that makes America truly great. It is the First Amendment to the constitution that gives every citizen the freedom to speak his/her mind, without fear of persecution. It is this very freedom that allowed Donald Trump to spew divisive lies and hatred and rise to the highest echelons of power. It is this very freedom that allowed social media and the internet to spawn "fake news" and sway public opinion like never before. And it is this freedom that allows one to dissent and critique America, in an act of love for country. And it is this freedom that allows me to express my opinion here on this screen, without fear of reprisals or threat from anyone known or unknown. And I am keenly aware that this is a luxury I am granted as a citizen of this nation. There are many around the world who are dead or are in prison for having expressed their mind. This very fact does not go unacknowledged lightly and it is one of the few reasons I chose to live here in this "great nation".   

This week Donald Trump questioned this cherished right by casting aspersions on some athletes who chose to dissent on the field, knowing they were being watched by millions, only to draw attention to some injustices that persist in this nation, despite great progress. By kneeling instead of standing while the national anthem played, they wanted to send a message about how they felt about this moment in time in America. To which the president responded in his usual brash and vulgar language, that they should be fired for being "unpatriotic". Another said they should protest on their own time and off the field. Others drew attention to the NFL rule book which elaborately explains a player's conduct during this ceremony and anyone who is in violation does not deserve to hold their position and so on and so forth. This discussion in response to another of Donald Trump's un-presidential behavior,  began to dominate the media sphere while other matters of greater importance were brushed aside.

Since when did the workplace become a space where one could not express one's opinion if one was doing it peacefully and without disruption? Through out history people have protested at their workplace by tying a black or red arm band expressing their displeasure. Athletes have raised their clenched fist on the medal stand to protest discrimination. The "greatest" of them all, Muhammad Ali threw away his Olympic gold medal in the river and defied the military draft to express his disgust of the America he was living in. These actions brought about steady but incremental change to a point where all people can demand their right to be treated with respect, dignity, justice and decency. It seems like those who disparage others for using free speech by exercising their own right to free speech, either do not know their history or have blatantly chosen to ignore it.

Free speech is absolute. There are no gradations to free speech. Anyone who expresses his/her views through words or non-violent action, can only be retorted by words and non-violence. Anyone who chooses violence to counter free speech is weak and impotent.

Salman Rushdie, probably is the only living intellectual, who was persecuted relentlessly for his words, when he published "The Satanic Verses" in 1989. For many writers and journalists he became a poster-child for free speech. His first condemnation began inside the largest democracy of the world, when India decided to ban his book on behest of a member of parliament's opinion that it would offend Muslims. Who at that time were a large voting block for the ruling government, and their appeasement was seen as vital to their re-election. Without much introspection, debate or for that mater reading of the book, he was accused of "blasphemy". This action caught wind and within a short period a death sentence for Salman Rushdie was proclaimed by a despot in Iran. The "Fatwa" made it incumbent upon every well meaning Muslim anywhere on the planet, to murder the author, to reclaim the religion from insult and denigration,

Salman Rushdie was not the first public intellectual to be persecuted for his/her ideas, but his predicament became a seminal moment which cast a chilling effect, whose impact is felt even today. When asked recently whether he would have considered writing the book in the present time, Salman Rushdie acknowledged, he would doubt it.

Freedom of speech in many societies around the world is under threat. Not just in dictatorships but in most democracies, voices are being thwarted by either authoritative governments or by a rise of populism, nationalism and fascism. According to the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) 24 journalists have been killed in 2017 around the world. On September 5th, a well known journalist, Gauri Shankar was assassinated in her house in Bangalore, India. Her death brought a vile polarized discourse to the surface which had been brewing in India for a while. Some openly felt "she had it coming" for her leftist/communist writings and investigations of the present establishment and its overlords. The shocking silence from some intellectual circles and the lack of outrage was a reflection of the state of affairs in a democracy that is faltering. In Bangladesh and Pakistan bloggers have been hacked to death or have been beaten into silence. In Russia anyone who speaks out against Vladimir Putin and his oligarchy is in the cross hairs of the security apparatus and other shadowy groups. In China the internet is severely censored and dissidents imprisoned with impunity. In Philippines, journalists critical of the government have come under attack and some have been murdered. In Egypt many languish in prison with no end in sight.

In America, the pendulum has swung in many directions. While journalists don't feel threatened for their lives yet, they have been demeaned, vilified and branded biased by the establishment. But unlike other nations, the media establishment in America is still strong, powerful, relentless and influential. When the mainstream media falters, which has been too often for comfort, satirists, comedians, talk-show hosts and in some instances Hollywood pick up the slack. But their reach has steadily waned since the advent of Twitter, Facebook and the like. By condemning the media that do not do his bidding and applauding, Donald Trump has launched a smoke and mirror dance that emboldens his base and divides the public like never before. This might serve him well if there is any criminality that is unearthed by the many ongoing investigations of him, his associates and his family. He can always dismiss it as liberal bias or a media take down of his presidency. But he refuses to take any concrete action against the real "fake news" that has proliferated the internet like a cancer, devouring the foundations of democracy, not just here in America, but around the globe.

People globally have become purveyors on social media and therefore have become prisoners of their echo chambers. A society that measures its worth by the number of "likes", "hits" and "dislikes" is down a slippery slope and its consequences are just being felt on the margins. While free speech is the oxygen that cannot be constricted, the internet has spawned a platform, where that oxygen can quickly turn to poison. Racism, bigotry, religious fanaticism and all the awful qualities human tribalism spawns, surface in the name of free speech. On the internet there is ample room for people to vomit and not get noticed, or explode for a short while and then burn out like a falling meteor.

Silicon Valley the bastion of liberalism created the internet to spread democracy and free speech without boundaries. They created a true egalitarian space in virtual reality, for people to feel empowered no matter who they are and where they live. In the process Google, Facebook and others have become more powerful than long established media companies and governments who were the traditional gatekeepers of opinion. By providing a platform for people to express their impressions of the world as they see it, they opened the door to lies, deceit and fabrication. In the recent investigations of the hijacking and hacking of the American election, it is becoming clear the role Silicon Valley may have inadvertently played in the election of Donald Trump. What we are seeing is that an unregulated internet can be a dangerous force, but to regulate it means going against the very essence of its creation. There in lies the dilemma in taming the insatiable beast.

Patriotism in most instances around the world, is defined and symbolized by flag draping, standing up for the anthem and pledge, supporting the troops and cheering your nation's sports teams or in the case of America, your favorite NFL or NBA team as air-force jets fly by in formation. In today's climate more than ever, if you criticize your government and its leaders, find fault in the justice system, speak out against war, racism, bigotry and religious fervor or expose the double standards and corruption openly practiced by politicians and CEOs, you are branded anti-national and or unpatriotic. If draping yourself or your profile picture on Facebook in a flag was all you had to do to be counted as a loyal citizen, then we might as well flush the idea of democracy and relegate ourselves to being a brainwashed society drugged by consumerism and mass consumption.

James Baldwin once said, "I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually". Probably the most patriotic thing to say and do, in an imperfect and flawed world.

This week US Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech at Georgetown University's Law School. The topic was free speech on college campuses. He defended the president's right to free speech for expressing his views on kneeling athletes and also commented on how college campuses around America were stifling free speech by shouting down speakers like Milo Yiannaopoulos and Charles Murray, they did not agree with. Then he went on to offer advise to the young students, some of who were protesting his presence with black tape on their mouths and kneeling. He said "As you exercise these rights, realize how precious, how rare and how fragile they are. In most societies throughout history" he added "openly criticizing the government or expressing unorthodox opinions could land you in jail or worse". From a cursory read it was unclear whether these ominous words were meant to be a cautionary tale or a foreshadowing of whats to come.

It is what it is

Friday, September 1, 2017

Winter is Coming!

The globally popular television show "Game of Thrones", is a sordid and violent tale of palace intrigue, revenge and brutal power struggle between kingdoms, kings, queens and their associates.
"Winter is coming" is an ominous phrase often used in the show, foreshadowing a dooms day coming. The phrase has become common usage among fans of the show, to signify something sinister to come, mostly in good humor.

For those who may have not seen the series, here is a primer. The lush television mega production is based on the vividly imagined fantastic tales by R.R.Martin in a series of books titled "A Song of Fire and Ice". Loosely borrowed from European fiefdoms of medieval times, R.R. Martin concocted a rich and layered fantasy universe filled with ornate palaces, lavish landscapes, flying banners, warring horseback armies, magic, dragons and zombies. The central thread runs around a power struggle between royal families, vying to claim their rightful place on the "Iron Throne", which would allow them to rule over the seven kingdoms which constitutes the whole universe of the story. While the kings and queens war, plot, deceive, murder and squabble among each other, to the north there is an army of the dead that is amassing which is all powerful and dominating and threatens to render all that is living obsolete. The series that just completed its seventh season, has been building to a moment, when the army of the dead would arrive at the giant ice wall, the only obstacle standing between the living and the dead.

So the wise John Snow, one of the main characters, tries to convince the warring kingdoms, that it is pointless fighting among each other as the real threat does not care who sits on the Iron Throne. If they do not put their differences aside and face the real enemy, life as they know it would cease to exist. And so he convenes a meeting of all parties and presents evidence that the army of the dead is real, by capturing one of the zombies. While he manages to convince that the threat is real, not all agree to cooperate. One of the factions chooses to find an island and seclude themselves from the danger and another sees an opportunity in the face of impending catastrophe. The final episode of the season ends with the army of the dead breaching the ice wall as winter begins to descend.

As we watch the fourth largest city in America, succumb to trillions of gallons of water unleashed upon it by a hurricane, and scientists and weather forecasters call it a "once in a 500 year flood" one wonders if this is just a freak of nature or is this a new normal. Is "the winter", climatologists have been predicting as the planet warms is already here.

Houston and its surrounding counties have seen their fair share of floods through the years. Partly because of their geographical location in the gulf of Mexico. In 1994 Montgomery county received 20 to 30 inches of rain and was inundated. This time this suburb of Houston received over 50 inches in a couple of days. A survivor of that 1994 deluge, responded to New York Times about this present calamity saying "this is the most catastrophic thing I've seen in my life".

Scientists have predicted for sometime now, that warming oceans can create intense storms which can pack immense amount of moisture and deliver it to land with devastating fury. One of the most significant and telling effects of global warming are abnormal weather patterns that can wreak havoc on population centers that are ill prepared to handle the increasing scale of the impact. While Huston was flooding and the media was focused on Hurricane Harvey, a third of Bangladesh was under water and Nepal, Mumbai and Karachi were dealing with unseasonal cloudbursts leading to hundreds of deaths. Approximately 16 million people in the region were estimated to have been affected by the floods.

Since the industrial revolution, nations have heated the planet by burning coal and other fossil fuels without refrain. Deforestation and other forms of pollution have rendered vast stretches of the planet lifeless. When science began to conclude with strong evidence the impact human activity was having on the globe, the first response was to doubt it. The worst polluting western nations did not want to stifle their economic growth and the developing nations felt it was their turn to pollute as they had to catch up to the west. After much squabbling over decades like the warring families of "Game of Thrones", 198 nations agreed to the non-binding Paris Climate Accord, acknowledging at least in principle, like the "army of the dead", climate change was real and an existential threat to all things living.

In all their wisdom, respecting the knowledge of almost 99% of the scientists of the world, in 2015, leaders signed onto the Paris Climate Accord. Nations agreed to take action to mitigate rising temperatures by enacting sensible regulations in their native countries. Then in 2017, Donald Trump ascended to the office of the American presidency and decided to go against the accord wowing to pull out. His decision was largely governed by his distrust of the scientific data and belief in climate change deniers. He often called climate change a "hoax" during his campaign rallies. The reason he gave though, was that he thought enacting any policies to curtail global warming would come at a great cost to the American economy and its workers.

As Texans clean up after the storm, an estimated 300,000 people have been directly affected by the storm. Many have lost homes and probably their livelihoods as a result. Petrochemical factories, that employ a large number in the area have been flooded and will take weeks if not months to reopen. As people rebuild, many employers will have to let go of people, not knowing when they would return. The economic impact of such a storm will be hard to gauge and will take its toll for years to come. Donald Trump's lopsided economic theory that acting on climate change might stifle economic growth and cost American jobs, is proven wrong with this catastrophic example. Whether it will be acknowledged, is another matter.

Climate change deniers defy logic. As they propose, if actually the climate is not changing as a result of human activity but is only going through a natural cycle, and that cycle will return back to its normal state in the future, then great, we will all be saved. But if that is not the case, and if humans are in fact contributing to an accelerated change in climate and rising ocean temperatures, then does it not make sense to stop being selfish and opportunistic and actively do something about it?

Climate change is a real security threat. Many sensible governments around the world and the US Military have adopted a serious posture in preparing for it. Just like the army of the dead in "Game of Thrones", it is real and it is not selective and it does not see borders. If the human race as a whole does not join hands in stemming its onslaught, life as we know it will cease to exist in the very near future. Hurricane Harvey is again sounding the alarm. It is for us to decide whether we want to unite or perish. It is what it is.